Nils Petter Molvær: Future Jazz Now

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Nils Petter Molvær
By C.F. Wesenberg
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Nils Petter Molvær
By C.F. Wesenberg

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“It’s luck,” says trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær with a shrug. “It’s being in the right place at the right time. There are so many factors and I have been fortunate they happened all at once for me.”

Since his 1997 album Khmer became an unexpected underground hit across Europe, the 41-year-old Norwegian has become one of the busiest musicians on the European jazz circuit. Embracing the liberating potential of dance beats and mixing it with suave jazz improvisation, Khmer was a sense-sharpening breeze of change that hit the right spot with European audiences and critics in 1998.

Coming after almost two decades of retro jazz, it was welcomed with unanimous acclaim, leading to Molvær’s nomination for the prestgious Nordic Council Music Prize 2000 and several awards, including Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, the annual prize of the German record critics, a Norwegian Grammy for best jazz album and even jazz record of the year in the L.A. Weekly.

With sales now well in excess of 100,000, and his latest album Solid Ether receiving rave reviews across Europe, Molvær is now getting requests to tour from as far afield as the Far East and Africa. “It seems sometimes like we have not stopped touring for the last three years,” he admits. “Right across Europe, Germany, particularly, but also Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France, the Netherlands. I love it, just to get out there and perform for audiences, play concerts, it is very important to me.”

Onstage, Molvær is an enigmatic figure, not given to seeking the spotlight, and remains a shadowy presence even when delivering one of his poignant, searching solos. “I think the idea of singing is important with an instrument. Instead of using a voice, I try and use the trumpet to have this singing quality,” he says. His middle-register loneliness is in perfect contrast to some ferocious grooves delivered by his band, with guitarist Eivind Aarset, bassist Auden Erlien, two drummers and a DJ. “I feel very positive about the way the band is working,” says Molvær. “I get a lot of ideas from where the music takes us when we play live.”

Molvær, who plays trumpet, guitar, bass guitar, percussion and the sampling machine on Khmer and Solid Ether, has an abiding interest in the music of North Africa. “If I lived another life, maybe it was there,” he says. On Khmer’s title track, for example, he sets up a rhythmically ambiguous North African vamp with a dulcimer in seven, a bass drum beat in five and a sample in 6/8. “I wanted to take the music away from ‘the one’,” he explains. Yet the rest of the album is rhythmically more equivocal, reflecting the impact of European house, techno and ambient rhythms and sounds on the Oslo jazz underground.

“I like the minimalistic grooves of European House, very trancey which you can easily relate to African music,” he says. “I work with delays to make the rhythm float, so to speak. Some of the off-beats in rhythms like 7/8 and 9/16 have roots in an old tradition of ethnic musics which I try to relate to the year 2001.”

It comes as no surprise that mixing acoustic and electric music has been one of Molvær’s main interests since he began playing. “I didn’t grow up playing jazz standards,” he says. “I started out with Miles Davis when I was 16 and grew up following developments Miles established from Bitches Brew to Agharta. I still love that music and Khmer is in some way connected to that part of the jazz tradition. But it also has some of the music I’ve been listening to over the last decade or so.”

Born in Sula, an island off the Northwest coast of Norway, in 1960 and the son of a well-known jazz musician, Molvær played bass, drums and keyboards before finally deciding to study trumpet. He has performed with Elvin Jones, George Russell and Gary Peacock and in 1982 he joined bassist Arlid Andersen’s genre-stretching group Masquelero, where he remained for most of the ’80s.

“Ever since I started in Masquelero I was listening to a lot of different stuff from Brian Eno to Jon Hassell to Bill Laswell and when it came time to go out on my own I wanted to mix all these ideas,” says Molvær. The jazz underground of Norway proved to be the ideal place for him to experiment. Compared to the rest of Europe, Norway is out on a limb, away from the ebb and flow of current jazz propriety and has done its own thing. It is a unique music scene where audiences are wide open to new ideas.

“It’s a very interesting scene,” agrees Molvær. “There are so many things happening. It is not so hooked up to mainstream jazz like our close neighbors Sweden and Denmark. A lot of great American jazz musicians took up residence in both Sweden and Denmark, and developed a very strong mainstream jazz scene there but in Norway nobody came because it’s cold and rocky! In Norway it’s a different tradition. It started out with Manfred Eicher of ECM records developing the careers of people like Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Jon Christensen, Arlid Andersen. So these people are our starting point, musicians who are known to experiment—our base is a different one to the rest of Europe.”

By the time he came to begin work on Khmer, Molvær had already appeared on eight ECM albums, so it was only natural for him to approach ECM boss Eicher with his new project. “I asked him if he was interested in hearing what I was doing and he said yes; it was as simple as that,” says Molvær. “I played some stuff for him at an early point and he said he liked it—said it needed a bit more focus, which was good advice as I was just checking out my ideas. Then I got a commission from the Vossa Jazz Festival to write a piece of music, so I thought I’ll do the commission like the record and vice versa.”

Although on the face of it, ECM embracing Molvær’s electric brew may seem at odds with the label’s ethos, Eicher is quick to point out that the so-called ECM sound is a misnomer, since the label includes radical guitar outings by the likes of Derek Bailey (1971’s Improvisations for Cello and Guitar with Dave Holland) and Terje Rypdal (more than 20 albums). ECM also put Pat Metheny on the map, recorded Gateway, with John Abercrombie, and released the first albums with Bill Frisell as leader. Invariably ahead of the game, it was hardly surprising that Molvær’s new brand of electronic experimentalism would appeal to Eicher.

The festival commission gave Molvær the financial security to turn down gigs and concentrate on writing. “After I performed the pieces at Vossa Jazz, I went into the studio,” recalls Molvær. “We recorded an enormous amount of material in blocks of two days here, two days there. The big job was to edit it. Then we sent the tape to Manfred, and he liked it.”

Khmer announced a new sound when it was released—the sound of the Norwegian jazz underground—and opened the door for other Norwegian musicians with what subsequently has been dubbed European future jazz or Norwegian nu-jazz.

Its popularity extends beyond the normal jazz constituency to connect with young audiences and restores jazz’s lost link with the popular culture. At any given time, jazz has always reflected what was going on around it—in the ’20s no jazz band could escape without having to play “The Charleston,” while jazz fans in the ’40s danced to the strain of the “Jersey Bounce.” This tryst with popular culture, making art out of pop, remained until the ’60s jazz-rock phenomenon had run its course.

When this link was undone in the ’80s with the neotraditionalists, jazz suddenly seemed like a museum of past styles and tried and tested methods of articulation. “Basically, American jazz has become not very interesting,” says Molvær with genuine regret, as if an old and trusted friend had passed. “There are a lot of good players, but are they forced to play that way? I don’t know. But for me, personally I like Johnny Cash better than I do Wynton Marsalis. He’s a great player but he doesn’t move me. Johnny Cash moves me, you know what I mean?”

Today the tradition has become a burden that weighs so heavily on American jazz it seems unable to move out from underneath it. Khmer came at just the right moment, as European audiences began to get bored with the American sounds of yesterday and began looking around for something new and fresh.

Molvær’s music is relevant to its time. In years to come there will be no mistaking this as jazz of the new millennium. You listen with your body as well as your mind. You tap your foot, you move in time to the music and yes, dance even. That’s why Molvær likes his audiences to stand. “It’s not traditional mainstream jazz, so we prefer to have people stand; it’s very physical music, it works best that way,” he says with a smile. Large-scale hedonism like this annoys the purists but Molvær realizes there is no future in the past and is experimenting with the sonic possibilities of tomorrow. “We’re different to what is happening in America,” he says, and he’s right.

The Oslo Underground and European Nu-Jazz

There is a quaint custom in Oslo. In winter, as the hours of daylight get fewer and fewer, places of business put two big candles on either side of their entrances to show passers by, hunched against the snow, they are open for trade. At the Club Bla, on the East side of the city in a run down industrial section, the candles are not lit until 10 p.m. But an hour before opening, a crowd of young people begins to queue. By the time the candles are lit, the crowd stretches around the block. But it’s not a rock club, a folk club or a rave. It’s a jazz club.

The crowd is queuing to see keyboard player Bugge Wesseltoft’s group, New Conception of Jazz, which creates a new jazz experience from the beat of club culture. Acoustically recreating the distinctive rhythms of European house, techno, drum-n-bass (smoother and subtler than their American equivalent) and interacting with a DJ, these are grooves that swing with precisely focused abandon. Not the harsh disjuncture of jazz meeting hip-hop, but a more minimalistic groove that Nils Petter Molvær points out, “is easily related to African music, rhythms from centuries-old tradition put into the year 2001.”

Molvær and Wesseltoft led a jazz group together in the early ’90s, and both started experimenting with the rhythms of club culture around the same time—indeed, Molvær features on Wesseltoft’s album New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland).

“The fact that Jan Garbarek and Jon Christensen and these musicians were world famous, was a very important point for me when I decided to go out on my own,” says Wesseltoft. “But on the other hand I did not really want to copy their style, I wanted to do something different but still keep the tradition I had experienced from them. I was into electronic stuff, which was not so common in the Norwegian jazz at that time, and I always enjoyed groovy music, so what I tried to do was a mixture of groovy music, but still of course trying to keep the atmosphere from the Nordic jazz thing.”

Wesseltoft formed his own label, Jazzland, to feature his music, and one of his first signings was Eivind Aarset, something of a guitar legend in Norway. Commissioned to produce a new work for Maijazz ’97, Aarset composed “7,” which subsequently became the album Électronique Noire (Jazzland), and was a classic. Quite simply it numbers among the great recordings of jazz-rock and brings the ethos of Hendrix to the new millennium’s door. “I have also been working for a very long time with electronics. I wanted to explore that,” says Aarset. “I went into the project wanting to go in a specific direction, focus in on sounds, and at the same time not losing focus on energy and the thoughts behind sound that music has to have. To me on guitar, there must be energy, at the same time depth and meaning.”

Yet Jazzland, with its brilliant roster of talent including Audun Kleive, the dynamic drummer from Terje Rypdal’s now legendary Chasers band of the late ’80s, Jon Balke and vocalists Sidsel Endressen and Beady Belle, is not the only label documenting new Norwegian music. Rune Gramoffon, now distributed by ECM, covers a wide range from styles, from nu-jazz to musique concrete and alternative rock. With distinctive cover art by Kim Hiorthøy, the label reflects the remarkable diversity of the Oslo underground of which jazz is a part, including the electro-acoustic improvisers Supersilent, Spunk and Alog.

France too is getting into some serious jazz grooves. Trumpeter Erik Truffaz’s Bending New Corners (Blue Note) reveals how the new beats of popular culture can reinvigorate improvisation, while tenor saxophonist Julien Lourau’s new album Gambit (Warner Music France) crosses the warp from the tried and tested to urban tribal rhythms of the future. Pianist Laurent de Wilde’s Time 4 Change (Warner Music France) is a well-conceived update of hard bop that shows how the new rhythms inspire soloists Flavio Boltro on trumpet and Gael Horellou on alto.

Ludovic Navarre’s group St. Germain have already sold over 600,000 copies of Tourist (Blue Note) across Europe and have received acclaim for their finger-on-the-pulse mix of dance rhythms and suave improvisation from the likes of trumpeter Pascal Ohsé, saxophonist Edouard Labor and guitarist Ernest Ranglin. It’s jazz that has relevance to its time. It’s not what jazz used to be, it’s what jazz can become and people are prepared to queue around the block to hear it.

Originally published in May 2001

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